Tag Archives: Conversation

Frenchie and the American Face(s)

15 Jun

Ever since I wrote about the French faces and facial expressions, I suddenly turned into this French circus animal despite all my best efforts to remove myself from the ring and ignore all performance requests. Aww come on, do a Horsey Blow again. And do it, like, like you mean it. Can you combine it with, like, a Face Fart? Yes, parties and friends’ gatherings where I should have been a willing, witty – and full of charm! – guest became my own nightmarish scenario where I was suddenly an unwilling game participant tortured to demonstrate innate pouts of frustration to other staring guests during an evening that would unfold to be catastrophic due to my unfathomable stage fright. Oops! Someone’s being French faces-shy! The inability to perform French faces under pressure. This is just my luck! But what I’ve learned all these years living in this country is that no matter what happens and how bad it looks, just smile. Smile and you’ll be rewarded – the reward here being that after 2 more glasses of wine everyone will have completely forgotten about the lack of French mouth fart performance.

So in preparing for this part deux of the facial expressions, I asked around about American facial traits. It became very clear that no one was able to give me examples for something that would make an interesting post. Americans don’t have any facial expressions like Europeans do – not due to heavy Botox use – but because they’re too busy smiling and thinking about how wide(r) their smiles can get. With that said, let’s get started:

- The Frozen Smile: Europeans speak and express themselves with their mouths and noises coming out of them. Americans haven’t learned yet how to do so due to the fact that their mouths are frozen smiling. It is achieved by opening your mouth wide and spreading your lips apart just like at a casting call for a Colgate commercial. The wider the better. And when you think you can’t get any wider, there’s always an extra half an inch to gain by stretching and prying. The automatic Frozen Smile is very useful: happy, confused, terrified, uncomfortable, speechless… smile, smile and smile again. And when you have no clue what someone is talking about and you either don’t care to find out nor don’t want to ask for more details… (vacantly) smile! It speaks volumes.

- The Aww-kward Aww: Tilt your head to the side with compassion, show pleading eyebrows and express a prolonged Aww. Congrats! You have just expressed an appreciative sound of sweetness sprinkled with an exclamation of pity mixed with warm feelings. A climactic draww-n out Aww will win you points for most-annoying-sound-that-doesn’t-mean-anything-in-particular. Whether talking about babies, puppies, a layoff or a broken leg – use your best Aww. Practice, rewind, replay, repeat.

- The Ecstatic High-Five: happy, happier and happiest – and it shows! The EHF is achieved by arching up the eyebrows way up high, opening the mouth really wide in surprise, happiness, excitement – decide depending on the situation – and raising the hand – does not matter which one. The sound attached to the EHF tends to be a pleasurable exclamation and a sense of elation also known as YAY! The EHF’s victorious goal is when the raised hand meets with another raised hand in a clap as palms hit one another. Note: it can be and often is combined with an open Frozen Smile, same as described above but wider and airier.

If, and only if, the EHF is not attached to a YAY! but to a Hi!… careful! – because it becomes:

- The Salutation Syndrome: same trick, same patterns – the motion stays the same. It looks identical as an EHF but can be very deceitful if unaware of the difference. If the person talking blurts out a Hi! then this is not a high-five even though the hand is raised. Do not, I repeat DO NOT high-five. The slight cunning variation in sound can cause tremendous clumsy and embarrassing situations, which would result in an Aww if you were to clap the raised hand offered to you – but if this is what you are after, go for it, it always makes a good story.

This syndrome is observed in all small to medium-sized cities. A bit more rarely in big metropolitan areas but not so uncommon nonetheless. 80% of the locals are affected by this syndrome and the best appropriate reaction is to mirror what you observe – meaning a combination of all facial expressions learned in this lesson: beginning with an Ecstatic High-Five combined with an open Frozen Smile but ending in a Salutation Syndrome by saying Hi! Note: if the answer to your Hi! is How are you? and you have never seen that person before, for now just mirror the locals and repeat How are you? At this point, remember to walk faster and leave the scene of the crime – you can run too if you want! We haven’t tackled yet the best way to approach the Empty Greeting Zone and the Small Talk Universe.

I was really hoping for French faces cut-out masks for Halloween because those faces are a bit more expressive than Americans’. I can’t seem to see an Aww-kward Aww mask. However, if someone out there is into recording American facial expressions and speech patterns and make ring tones, I want one!

Do you have more examples of American facial expressions? Share them in the Comments section below.

Frenchie and the Idio(t)matic Expressions

8 Jun

*** When he brought back his strawberry in the house, he thought she was a super owl girl. Even though she boxed him up, he did not have a tooth against her. He wanted to apologize but had other cats to whip after all. So he put his feet in the plate and sold the wick. Yes, he had been throwing money out of the window for months and knew deep inside that she was leading him by the tip of his nose. When she finally slapped him, he saw 36 candles.

No, you are not reading the detailed account of a crazy frenglish dream. These are just idioms – French idioms – which obviously don’t have the same meaning in English.

A funny zebra (FR) / A peculiar person (ENG)

At least a million blog posts could be written about idioms, their usage and silly examples of mistakes made along the way. According to my trusted Oxford dictionary, an idiom is “a phrase/sentence whose meaning is not clear from the meaning of its individual words and which must be learnt as a whole unit” – meaning these are words or expressions that are grammatically unusual and their meaning cannot be taken literally. In my book, this screams “big belly laughs while learning strange idio(ma)tic expressions.” So if you want to be cool as a cucumber, use your noodle to learn metaphorical expressions and be the cream of the crop.

I am pretty certain that the first idiom French students learn in English class is the famous “it’s raining cats and dogs“, which for a 12 year-old kid is one of the most abstract and bizarre thing to hear. Do English speakers really think that a heavy rain looks like St. Bernards, German Shepherds along with Burmese and Maine Coon cats falling from the sky and crashing on umbrellas? Not pretty. Because the French equivalent “il pleut des cordes” (it’s raining ropes) makes so much more sense… to the French!

It is not pie (FR) / It is not easy (ENG)

For me, learning idioms was like pulling teeth. I was lucky enough to learn straight from the horse’s mouth because of the move to the U.S. – always best to learn a language in the country. At first, it was all Greek to me and I did get cold feet. But I played it by ear, learned and made mistakes, and despite the butterflies in my stomach I tackled this hot potato and had a field day. Now, once in a blue moon, I still stumble on unknown idioms but no need to cry for bloody murder. And to this day, I still make the same mistake when I say that someone’s been pulling my legs… yes, both of them!

[Sorry French readers, I couldn't help but include a paragraph full of English idioms]

A storm in a teacup (ENG) / A storm in a glass of water (FR)

Idioms are like a fun game to learn and reuse in conversations. It actually makes you sound more “native” and somehow proves that you’ve mastered another intricate level of the language. So what are your favorite idioms in your native language and in the languages you learned? The most difficult idioms to learn or remember? What are the strangest ones you’ve heard? Share in the Comments section below.

*** Translation of the first paragraph

When he showed up at the house, he thought she was a fantastic girl. Even though she pulled his leg, he did not have anything against her. He wanted to apologize but he had other fish to fry after all. So he spilled the beans and let the cat out of the bag. Yes, he had been throwing money down the drain for months and knew deep inside that she had him wrapped around her little finger. When she finally slapped him, he saw stars.

To count your chickens before they are hatched (ENG) / To sell the bear's skin before killing it (FR)

Frenchie and the French Face(s)

28 May

I’ve never been aware of the typical French facial expressions until Americans started to ask me what my reactions really meant. “What’s with the air blowing? Are you a horse?” Offended at first that my friends thought I was imitating an animal, I came to realize that the traditional French expression of frustration, combined with the usual pout of annoyance while blowing air, does not work in this country. It means nothing other maybe than the fact that you might be a zoologist studying equine sounds and habits. Here are some of my most favorite French expressions – decoded for you:

- The Horsey Blow: as explained above, expressing a great frustration. It is achieved by a subtle pout letting air come out of the mouth in a blowing sound. The louder the sound, the greater the frustration. Stuck in a situation you can’t get out of or waiting in a long line at the Post Office or better yet, having to do something you really don’t want to do… a horsey blow is in order.

- The Shoulder Shrug: if done well and with practice, it can mean 1,000 words. The shoulders are raised high above the neck line and dropped quickly for an effect that can really take your American audience by surprise. And let’s not forget the mouth and lips going down as in trying to imitate a sad smiley :( . Depending on the situation, what it means is “I don’t know“, “I don’t care“, or as you go more into the vulgar vocabulary, “I don’t give…” – fill in the blanks. The Shoulder Shrug along with the Horsey Blow is one of the most common thing in France. Practice makes perfect!

- The Face Fart: simple, sleek and discreet, it is a variation of the sad-smiley-mouth combined with a Horsey Blow but this time creating a fart sound with the mouth. The sound alone speaks for itself. No need to add anything. The person talking to you should know immediately that you cannot be bothered by anything at the moment and that you don’t really know or care about what’s going on. “So French!Please note: the Face Fart can be and often is combined with a Shoulder Shrug. Practice in front of a mirror.

- The Eye Pulling: for this trick, you only need your index finger and one of your eye. Pull gently the skin under your eye with your index and say “mon œil!” – aka “you’re full of it!” For an added French dramatic expression, tilt your head down and give your best disbelieving look. Americans would say “my foot” instead of talking about their eye but in all honesty, no one says that. “Yeah, right” would be more appropriate, “yeah, yeah” can work too.

Maybe one day cut-out Halloween masks of French faces will be sold in your favorite costume stores. In the meantime, practice and send pictures of your best French faces! And if you have more examples, list them in the comment section.

For another fun interpretation of the French expressions – with pictures – click here. And stay tuned for the American faces and expressions coming up soon.

Frenchie and the Retarded Booger

4 Apr

Once upon a time, there was a fresh-off-the-boat young Frenchman moving to the U.S. of A. with 3 suitcases, $200 in his pocket, a French accent and a never-warm-enough jacket for the rough Midwestern winters. Moving or traveling to a different country can be as exhilarating as it can be mortifying when it comes to mastering the intricate meanderings of language learning combined with the ability to detect false friend subtleties, which will consequently give you a feverish headache from thinking too much about it and a big case of embarrassing redness once you finally understand what it is you just said.

We’ve all been there, we’ve all done it. Language mistakes! And somehow, for some strange reason unbeknownst to me, it always ends up turning and twisting my original thoughts into some sort of naughty idea with dirty undertones and connotations. My all-time 2 favorite mistakes English-speakers make when speaking French are when a woman says “Je suis pleine” for “I am full” after a big French meal, which literally translates to either “I am sloshed” or when referring to an animal “I am pregnant”. Good fun! Simply saying “Je n’ai plus faim” (“I am no longer hungry”) works very well. The other example, which will continuously make me giggle until the day I die, is when an English-speaker says “I want to introduce myself” when meeting someone for the first time. When said in French, usually something we don’t really say anyway, the English mind automatically translates it to “Je veux m’introduire“, which means “I want to insert myself”. You cannot not laugh at this, it’s too good for words! “Je veux me présenter” is perfectly proper in this context. The ultimate lesson here is that one cannot expect to avoid making mistakes when being inserted introduced to real life situations and colloquialisms – the other lesson though is to never use the false friend “introduire” for “introduce” ever again when meeting someone. Just ‘cuz!

My own personal issues with these funny embarrassing moments came mostly from words that sound similar. If they sound similar, their pronunciation is obviously similar. Unfortunately, the mouth and tongue muscles involved in these pronunciation exercises failed me occasionally. I always meant well, but it came out wrong. I had the right words in mind but my tongue said otherwise. So other than the fact that I was known for ordering a “booger” instead of a “burger” – and if you add adjectives such as “juicy”, the person you’re talking to is in for a treat! – I was also famous for what is now known in my inner circle as “the grandparents story”. When meeting people for the first time, basic questions such as who you are, where you’re from, what you do, and why you moved become trite questions after a while. It gets a bit complicated when questions go more in-depth requiring other type of information to divulge along with an extended vocabulary to be quickly at hand without any notice. So when describing what my parents do, where they live, who my family and grandparents are, I ended up proudly saying that “my grandparents are retarded, and they’re just thrilled and happy about it!”. I said it once, four times and then all the time thinking that I was saying “retired” and that I was doing my grandparents justice explaining to a floor of American listeners that retirement is perfectly OK and you shouldn’t have to work until you’re 85.

Americans are always sweet and funny in these delicate situations when they don’t know if it’s a joke, a mistake or actually true. The reactions I saw were the same across the board as people inadvertently tilt their head to the side with compassion and express a drawn out “Aww” – an exclamation of pity sprinkled with warm feelings of appreciative sweetness. It wasn’t until I questioned these reactions that I understood my mistake. Why would people say “Aww”? My grandparents aren’t working… there’s really nothing to it. And you have to agree, “retired” and “retarded” look a bit the same and they are only separated by a small degree of pronunciation differences. So whether you want to order a juicy burger or talk about your retired grandparents, I want to know what your most embarrassing funny foreign language mistakes triggered the biggest reactions.

The Sweet Life of “Retardment”

Frenchie and the Butcher

10 Feb

- Frenchie: “Can I please have one of those black pepper beef burgers?”

- Whole Foods Butcher: “Sure thing!”

- Frenchie: “Wait, they’re kinda big for one person, it looks like a burger for two. Do you have anything smaller?”

- Whole Foods Butcher: “This is America buddy, burgers are burgers!”

- Frenchie: “OK then! Super size me that burger!”

Frenchie and the Gloomy Shutters

3 Feb

Have you ever noticed that an American street at 9:00p.m. is brighter and more full of life than a French street? If you have ever walked in sleepy suburbia or small town France, you know what I’m talking about. Curtains, doors, shutters, all French houses are closed and locked after a certain time – that is, at the time when the sunset brings down those last colorful rays in a pale sky making the atmosphere almost eerie yet intriguing. Well, the French are masters at making their streets creepier and gloomier than they already are when the darkness has settled thanks to their trusted shutters.

In case you don’t already know, Americans don’t use shutters and if you see some around windows, they’re fake! They are meant to be some sort of European-fairy-tale-decoration straight from Disneyland. It’s a style, or so they say. Now, what could be even more surprising (possibly disturbing?) to Europeans is that houses or apartment here are not guaranteed to come with blinds either – in France, if you live in a modern building without shutters, at least your place comes with pre-installed blinds that are built in the windows. Not so much on this side of the pond. While all of my previous apartments and condos had blinds when I moved in, the last two didn’t. For Europeans, the sight of no blinds or curtains attached to the windows is like a vampire’s nightmare. They’d burn and shrivel up right on the spot with agony knowing that the outside could see them in their home. Or maybe they’d sparkle, à la Twilight, in a more sophisticated Euro way.

Do the French secretly learn Gothic Homemaking tricks? Not quite. But they have mastered the creation of the perfect vampire house to keep eyes away from their personal lives. Americans on their other hand put their lives on a silver platter for everyone to admire and observe. Walking at night, you can see them eat, watch TV, doing the dishes, play cards, fight, laugh, host dinner parties and a million other things. Why? Because they never shut their blinds. Living in this country and understanding the concept of exposing one’s life to the outside world is a fun and sad mix of movie titles from Rear Window to I Know What You Did Last Summer. Yes, I know what my neighbors across the street did last weekend; they had a birthday party at 5:00p.m., I saw part of the festivities as I was reading on my couch. They can also probably tell you that I stopped reading after finishing chapter 9. Awkward!

The real explanation behind all this is simple: the French are very distrustful and will build their lives around that feeling (shutters, high fences around gardens and houses, clear separations between the house, the street and other houses) while Americans couldn’t care less and couldn’t be bothered the slightest by knowing that a stranger’s eye is peeking at their lives. This is why Americans wonder why French houses are protected as such and the French feel a certain nervousness at the openness of American houses. I used to shut my blinds right at 5 or 6:00p.m. when I first moved here and now I live in a place where there are no blinds in the living and dinning rooms. And I did not install any. Going from one extreme to the other? I’ve learned not to care as much – at least not as much as that one night back in the days when I realized too late that I had been cooking in my kitchen for an hour with the blinds open and noticed my neighbor looking and walking by. My instant reflex was to duck down.

One has to wonder if the French extreme use of shutters is a mere protection to prevent others from stealing their lives and privacy. It is interesting though that the word for “shutter” in French is volet, which homophone is voler meaning “to steal”.

shutter heART

Frenchie and the Pessimism Nouveau

4 Jan

Breaking news: “France tops misery poll for 2011″. “French, the world champions of scepticism”. “France lands in Top 5 pessimistic countries for 2011 ahead of Afghanistan and Irak”!

The French are pessimistic? Really? Now that’s not really breaking news!!

Pessimism is a French trait and that’s not new. The French are pessimists and they raise pessimistic children. Didn’t de Gaulle himself once say that the French are “temperamental, stubborn and complainers”? I think he also forgot pessimistic. So is pessimism a French invention?

Heard out and about:

- in the U.S.: “I thought the Patriots didn’t play very well last night. I don’t know, something about their game. They have a weak pass defense. And they keep loosing. But the new kid is doing a great job for them and they’re definitely gonna come back strong, I just know they’re gonna win!”

- in France: “Yeah, the French team was not too terrible last night but… I just know they won’t win. There’s no way they’re gonna make it to the finals. No way! I mean, yeah they won last night – not by much if you ask me – but the way it’s going right now, they won’t win.”

- in the U.S.: “You have good grades overall. You just have to be careful in Biology, you got a B -. Let’s set up something with other classmates so we can create a support system and hold group studies twice a week, I know it’d be very beneficial for everyone and your grades would definitely improve!”

- on a French grade report: “Shows some potential, but could do better. Must try harder”.

<Sigh!> The French grade report. Didn’t we all get at one point the dreaded and completely obscure – although now hilarious – “peut mieux faire” (“could do better”)? Weren’t we trying our hardest to get the best grades until we realized that no one could ever get a grade better than 12 out of 20? If you got 10, you could claim to be a happy man. “No need to study like crazy, you know this teacher never gives anyone more than 9 or 10 out of 20 anyway!” So pessimists from Day 1? “Nice drawing but it could use more colors” – the joys of art classes!

The French and their “buts”, somehow, somewhere, there will be a “mais” in the sentence. “It’s good but… you did not do enough work on the last part of the assignment”. “Yes you can come to the party but… there will be a lot of people”. “This recipe is very tasty but… I would have added more rosemary”. When there’s a will, there’s a but. Is “yes, but” the greatest French pessimistic tool ever invented? What a civil way of agreeing while reinforcing a pessimistic disagreement!

So which is better? The French very realistic pessimistic approach that 2011 is not going to be a great year for the economy or the American “think positive with blinders on” overcaffeinated hyper approach that all is going to be well and you just have to trust the system? A little bit of both maybe? In any case, whether you want to French-complain your New Year or American-artificially-force 2011, remember to optimistically wish every one a good New Year.

Happy Freakin’ New Year, this is so exciting woo hoo!… yes, but the Holidays are over and we have to go back to work… boo!

Pessimistic, moi?


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